Home > 100 Greatest Scores, Reviews > SPARTACUS – Alex North

SPARTACUS – Alex North

100 GREATEST SCORES OF ALL TIME

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Kirk Douglas’ pride was wounded when director William Wyler selected Charlton Heston over him for the titular role in Ben-Hur. He resolved to show Wyler and Hollywood that he could carry a Roman epic film. Fortune smiled when Edward Lewis, a studio executive in Douglas’ production company, came upon the novel Spartacus (1951) by Howard Fast. Its heroic story telling of a man who rises up to challenge the might of the Roman Empire offered a perfect opportunity for Douglas to showcase his talent. He purchased the film rights and then convinced Universal Studios to jointly finance the film. Douglas brought in Fast to adapt his own novel, but his unfamiliarity with cinematic screenplays led to his dismissal. Douglas was determined to succeed at all costs, and so stoked controversy by bringing in black listed screenplay writer Dalton Trumbo and insisting that he get screen credit. This decision was decisive in that it served to break the decade long blacklisting of writers in Hollywood. For his cast, we have one the finest ever assembled. Supporting Douglas in the titular role would be Lawrence Olivier as Crassus, Jean Simmons as Varinia, Charles Laughton as Gracchus, Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiatus, Tony Curtis as Antoninus, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, John Dall as Glabrus and John Ireland as Crixus. The film got off to a rocky start when Douglas fired his director Anthony Mann after one week of shooting – he felt he was in over his head. He brought in past collaborator Stanley Kubrick, and the rest is history.

The story is set circa 73 BCE and centers on the life of a Thracian slave named Spartacus who has been condemned to death in the Libyan mines. By chance he catches the eye of Lentulus Batiatus who purchases him for gladiator training at his school in Capua. It comes to pass that Spartacus falls in love with the slave Varinia, whom he was gifted, yet refused to rape. In time after refining his skills and suffering repeated abuse, he leads a revolt at the academy, which topples Batiatus, causing him to flee for his life with Varinia. Spartacus then begins to systematically raid Roman country estates and free their slaves, which serves to earn him admiration and swell his ranks. The uprising gains increasing strength and soon spreads across the southern Italian Peninsula. Spartacus plans to use the spoils of his conquests to pay Cilician pirates for the use of their ships to transport his followers to safety in Greece. At this stage the Roman Senate was alarmed and dispatched Marcus Publius Glabrus, Commander of the garrison of Rome, to put down the rebellion. His ignominious defeat by Spartacus shocks the Senate, which then dispatched Senator and General Marcus Licinius Crassus with six legions to crush Spartacus once and for all.

Spartacus and his followers successfully reach Brundisium only to find that the Cilician pirates have been bought off and abandoned them. With the armies of Pompey and Crassus closing in, Spartacus turns his forces against Crassus, hoping to defeat him before Pompey can join. He is however defeated, captured and crucified by Crassus, but not before seeing his son and Varinia escape to safety as free citizens. The film was a huge commercial success, earning nearly nine times its production costs. It was also a critical success, receiving six Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Score, winning four including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Supporting Actor.

Producer Edward Lewis had long been a fan of North’s music and brought him in very early in the project. North was passionate about the film and would have over a year to research and write his score. Upon reading the script North perceived that there were many scenes where there was little or no dialogue. This provided him with a grand canvass, and rare compositional opportunities where his music would solely carry the film’s narrative. As such he sought inspiration from Prokofiev’s masterpiece Alexander Nevsky (1938), given the epic scope of the film. He understood that a massive horn section was required, which he would use to evoke Roman fanfares, the heroism of the struggle, and the barbarism of pagan culture. As such, he employed a number of different orchestras for the film; the B orchestra consisted of only 76 musicians and supported most of the film’s scenes. It was more exotic and dominated by woodwinds, horns, rare ethnic instruments and percussion. The A orchestra however was more classical in that it included 26 violins, which increased it to 102 musicians. Yet for the Main Title and film conclusion the number swelled to 120 musicians! In an effort to recreate an authentic pre-Christian Roman sensibility, North chose to infuse his soundscape with the exotic auras of the Israeli recorder, crotales, the ancient Greek kythara, a dulcimer, lute, guitar, harp, marimba, boo-bams, a sarrousaphone, sleigh bells, a Chinese oboe, Chinese tree bells, a Yugoslav flute, bagpipes, a Novachord, and an Ondioline – a rare electronic keyboard instrument, which emoted with the joint sounds of woodwinds, mandolin and percussion! Yet North would in the end maintain fidelity to his unique voice, one, which was modernist in its dissonance and lack of tonality, yet still embracing of the past with its leitmotific expression. He stated that he saw in the film man’s eternal quest for freedom;

“It has something to say about the world, which existed then and, which still exists. I decided here to conjure up the feelings of pre-Christian Rome, not by resorting to archaisms and clichés, but in terms of my own contemporary, modern style – simply because the theme of Spartacus, the struggle for freedom and human dignity, is every bit as relevant in today’s world as it was then. I wanted to interpret the past in terms of the present.”

North’s leitmotif score used nine themes and motifs. Foremost is that of our hero, Spartacus. The Spartacus’ Theme is atypical in that it does not emote with the traditional anthemic heroic power normally associated with the protagonist. Rather its is determined, and purposeful with a reserved nobility. It exudes strength, but is not bombastic. Low register strings and horns carry its articulation and for me North created the perfect theme for the Spartacus, the slave freer. Varinia’s Theme is legend, one that will echo through time, and one that I believe is the finest ever written by North. It serves as both her personal identity, but also as the love theme. Carried by sumptuous strings and adorned by gentile woodwinds its A Phrase speaks of love’s yearning, while its florid B Phrase speaks of love’s rapture. The Slave Theme offers a truly grim statement, which speaks to the degradation, ceaseless toil and suffering of slaves. This long lined theme is introduced and adorned with a myriad of metallic and traditional percussion. Strings affanato (only viola, celli and bass) carry the pathos of despair. Yet one discerns within the notes tangible nobility, as North understands the message of Spartacus, that one’s essential human dignity cannot be taken, but must instead, be surrendered.

There are two gladiator army identities in the film; the Gladiator March offers a classic drum propelled and horn declared march, which is used to support the gladiator brigades. While the Gladiator Army Theme offers a more martial articulation propelled by trombones and sharp percussion. The Nostalgia Theme is heard but once during the “Blue Shadows and Purple Hills” cue, and it is a shame as it offers one of the score’s finest moments. The phrasing of this long-lined nostalgic violin carried melody is full of longing, hungering for the past, the warmth of the family hearth, and for better times. The Paternal Theme speaks to Spartacus’ paternal love for his fellow slaves whose welfare he has been entrusted. Also heard but once during the night before the final battle, this supremely tender, lyrical, string laden melody speaks of a father’s love. There is a subtle tinge of regret within the notes, as Spartacus understands that this will be the last night together for many families. The Roman Theme is a militaristic construct carried by distant muted trumpets and martial percussion. It serves as both as Crassus’ personal identity, as well as that of the Roman legions he commands. There is no warmth or bravado to be found, only a cold, menacing and irresistible cadence of death. The Death Motif is simple in construct and resounds on trumpets of doom, which portend or declare death.

“Overture” offers a bright and energetic piece brimming with confidence. It preceeds the film in classic Hollywood style and contains music that was edited out by studio executives. We begin with confident trumpets energico, which herald the victory of the slaves in the excised cue titled “Battle Map.” At 0:09 we segue into an exuberant marcia trionfonti, which was intended to celebrate the slave victory over the Romans at Metapontum. At 1:23 we return to the celebratory fanfare, which opened the piece. “Main Title” offers a brilliant score highlight, and one of the finest cues to ever open a film. It is paired with the great visuals of the legendary visual arts master, Saul Bass. Bass’ concept was to portray the strength, grandeur and power of the Roman Empire, which ends with an allusion to its demise. What unfolds is a parade of symbols, engraved words and attributes of power, which gradually coalesce into grand busts of the Roman patrician elite. We bear witness to a testament to Roman power, yet the bust slowly begins to crack and crumble until all that remains is its eye, a portal from which we pass into the film. North’s music is a fine example of the power of juxtaposition. He opens by using a massive horn section comprised of six French horns, six trumpets, seven trombones and two tubas, supported by battery of percussionists to emote the Roman Theme, a martial fanfare declaration that attests to the irresistible might and power of Rome. At 1:28 Spartacus’ Theme enters with a slow and deliberate articulation, which begins a glorious ascent atop a crescendo of power that culminates with a shattering dissonance and horn-laden flourish!

“The Mines” reveals a shackled Spartacus toiling under the oppressive sun of the Libyan stone quarries. North introduces his Slave Theme, whose sharp metallic percussion strikes speak to the misery of metal shackles and stone. Strings affanato carry the pathos of despair, yet we discern within the melody and eyes of Spartacus, an irrepressible nobility of spirit, which shall not yield. When he comes to the aid of fallen comrade, he is beaten and responds by hamstringing a guard. His punishment is to be shackled to a rock to die of exposure. At 2:38 we segue into leisurely travel music, which supports the arrival of Batiatus. He takes a liking to the muscular Spartacus and his indomitable spirit, purchasing him to train in his academy as a gladiator. In “Caravan” We see Spartacus taken in a cage as they trek across the desert plains. The woodwind and percussion rich travel music reprises to carry their progress.

“First Pair” offers a score highlight. Crassus and his retinue arrive and visit Batiatus’ academy. He purchases Varinia, and demands that two pairs, one of which includes Spartacus, fight to the death. This decision is fateful, as it unleashes a series of events, which will lead to the ruin of many. The scene has a palpable tension as the men prepare to meet death. As Crixus and Galino fight, Spartacus and Draba watch through the slats in the arena door. North supports the scene with the Slave Theme emoted as a grim marcia funebre with menacing snare drum strikes. Declarations by forlorn trumpets announce the Death Motif, alluding to the final outcome. As the men fight, North sustains the dirge, which offers a striking contrast to the unfolding fight. Slowly Crixus gains the upper hand and we crescendo atop the trumpets of the Death Motif as he slays Galino. A percussive flourish supports the victorious Crixus as he exits the arena. “Gladiators Fight To The Death” sustains the drama of the previous cue and offers another stunning score highlight. As Spartacus and Draba enter the arena we observe that Draba is a powerful Ethiopian who bears the trident and net, while Spartacus bears but a sword and small shield. As the two battle, North supports with a powerful joining of a truly fierce synergy of percussion, woodwinds and horn fare. The music is harsh, strident and primal as the men battle for survival. At 1:23 a grim rendering of the Slave Theme by harsh low register horns returns as Draba gains the upper hand and pins Spartacus against the wall, yet instead of striking him down, he hurls his trident at Crassus and then scales the arena wall to the royal box. He is struck down, speared by the guards, and we see in Spartacus’ eyes his gratitude for Draba.

“Brooding” reveals the devastating aftermath of the fights. Powerful pent up emotions are in play as sorrow, grief and anger swirl as a tempest within the men. We open with a contemplative Varinia gazing out at the arena at dusk. The muted variant of the Death Motif by English horn and bassoon set the mood, with a transfer to plaintive viola as we gaze upon Varinia. At 0:34 as the gladiators are forced to file past the hanging desecrated corpse of Draba the Death Motif sustains its anguished articulation with a transfer to piccolo and oboe, which are joined by kindred woodwinds of despair. With only one spoken line of dialogue, it is remarkable how North’s music conveys the full emotional content scene, a brilliant testament to his gift. “On To Vesuvius” offers a supreme score highlight, which showcases North’s beautiful Love Theme. We see the ranks of freed slaves swelling as they pillage the rich country estates of the landed Roman nobility. North offers a wondrous celebratory paean to freedom full of joy and happiness. At 0:52 the Gladiator March enters as we see Spartacus and his guard attempting to recruit new slaves for the cause. At 1:11 he sees Varinia and his joy is carried by the Love Theme, which enters on violas as woodwinds dance to and fro. As they recount their days together, laughing and crying they embrace, and declare their undying love for each other. The Love Theme, now rendered in all its sumptuous beauty supports our lovers in one of the films most moving moments, culminating in a splendid trumpet declared flourish! The bonus cue 21 offers the Love Theme as a concert piece and is I believe one of the album’s most treasured pieces.

“Oysters And Snails” reveals Crassus in a bath being attended to by his boy servant, Antoninus. Crassus is aroused by Antoninus and is trying to subtlety flesh out his sexual proclivities by using oysters and snails as metaphors. He exits the bath and walks to his balcony where he observes the garrison of Rome marching. With his back turned he declares what he desires from the boy, but when he turns Antoninus is nowhere to be found. North scores the scene astutely by juxtaposing Crassus’ sexual tension and Antoninus’ innocence. The music is textural, lacking an overt melody, and infused with gossamer like twinkling, adorned with a metallic sparkle born from a joining of harp, marimba, crotales, lute, guitar, Chinese bells, and vibraphone. This approach was perfectly conceived and executed. In “Hopeful Preparations/Vesuvius Camp” Senator Gracchus has separated Crassus from his troops by manipulating his ally Glabrus into leading the garrison of Rome against Spartacus. At the Mount Vesuvius encampment of the slave army, we see a mounted Spartacus surveying the camp. This is a proud and optimistic moment for the rebellion and North supports the scene with inspired confidence and pride. The music is syncopated with horns allegrezza, spritely woodwinds and cheerful strings filling us with happiness. “Vesuvius Montage” offers a training montage where we see slaves receiving military training in preparation to meeting the well-trained Roman troops. North supports the scene with an unabashed rendering of his militaristic Gladiator Army Theme.

“Blue Shadows And Purple Hills” offers an evocative score highlight of uncommon beauty, and my personal favorite. Antoninus recites a poem whose words, when joined with North’s music, achieves one of the most sublime confluences in cinematic history;

When the blazing sun hangs low in the western sky,
when the wind dies away on the mountain,
when the song of the meadowlark turns still,
when the field locust clicks no more in the field,
and the sea foam sleeps like a maiden at rest,
and twilight touches the shape of the wandering earth,
I turn home.
Through blue shadows and purple woods,
I turn home.
I turn to the place that I was born,
to the mother who bore me and the father who taught me,
long ago, long ago, long ago.
Alone am l now, lost and alone, in a far, wide, wandering world.
Yet still when the blazing sun hangs low,
when the wind dies away and the sea foam sleeps,
and twilight touches the wandering earth,
I turn home.

The poetry is full of nostalgia and longing, and the music, which supports Antoninus’ words, is kindred with the Love Theme from which it is derived. Tender violins delicate carry the fragile long-lined melody, supported by harp, lute, and guitar. When a solo viola moves to the forefront at 0:58 the joining of music, the spoken word, and cinematography achieve a breath-taking confluence, which brings one to tears. As Varinia and Spartacus seek solitude from the group at 2:13 the Love Theme returns to carry their time alone. It is a respite for the couple, an idyllic moment where Spartacus shares his hopes and aspirations as the Love Theme joins their hearts.

“Headed For Freedom” was originally conceived by North for the scene “Glabrus Defeated” where the slaves ambush the Roman encampment, however Kubrick dialed it out. As such, the ever-resourceful North redeployed it marvelously for the Entr’Acte. The cue was originally designed to support a battle scene, so we are provided by bravado renderings of both Gladiator Themes. “Homeward Bound” is a binary cue, which offers a wonderful opportunity in that for the first part “To The Sea” there is no dialogue. We reprise the exuberant marcia trionfonti, which was introduced in the Overture. It supports the slave’s journey to Brundisium, where they seek transport from Italy. The music is confident and optimistic with expressions of Spartacus’ Theme and both Gladiator Themes. We see in the faces of the slave’s hardship, but also a growing belief that a life of freedom is possible. At 2:29 we scene change for an infant burial, which North scores intimately with strings affanato, bells, a grieving solo viola and strummed instruments supporting the parents pain. At 3:09 we shift back to the many slaves journey to the sea and the music regains is vibrancy and confidence. At 3:49 we segue into “Beside The Pool” where Spartacus joins Varinia who is bathing. An exquisite rendering of the Love Theme supports her revelation that she is with child, and his joy of the news.

Before proceeding, I inform the reader of some significant film subtext. Studio executives made 42 grievous postproduction cuts to the film after Kubrick had departed, which reeked havoc with the film’s narrative flow, and North’s score. The politics of slavery intervened and the studio, under intense external pressure caved in and removed all footage of the slave army victories of Luceria and Metapontum, as they did not wish to support the notion that mere slaves could have defeated their ‘civilized’ Roman masters. This in my judgment betrayed the film’s core narrative. North was so angry that he had a Bernard Herrmann moment of rage and demanded that his name be stripped from the film’s credits. Thankfully, this was not done. In “Metapontum Triumph” we have incongruity in the film’s narrative flow in that we have the slaves celebrating their victory over the Roman army at Metapontum, but the viewer has no context as the battle scene was edited out of the film! As mentioned early, North redeployed some of the excised music to construct the Overture. The music presented in this cue offers a wonderful marcia festivamente as the victorious slaves enter Metapontum fresh from their victory. As Spartacus rides forth, the cue concludes gloriously with a celebratory rendering of his theme.

“Festival” supports the slave army’s arrival on the shores of the Adriatic Sea where they await extradition by the Cilician pirates. North supports the joyous setting with a splendid rendering of a traditional southern Italian Tarantella, whose festive tambourine accented dance rhythms perfectly carry the celebration. At 0:45 we scene change to Spartacus’ tent where Tigranes declares his “heavy burden and evil tidings.” He informs Spartacus that Crassus has bought off the pirate fleet and only he and his family can be taken to safety. Spartacus refuses and sends Tigranes away, realizing that he is now trapped between the armies of Pompey, Crassus and Lucullus who will land at Brundisium the next day. North chose to sustain the Tarentella through the tent discussions, which juxtaposed well the dire news within the tent and celebration outside. “Expectant Parents” offers another score highlight with one the most emotional scenes of the film. Spartacus joins Varinia in his tent, as she will soon give birth. All that is between them is laid bare as they recount how far they have come together, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of what will soon unfold o the battlefield. We see in their eyes a love eternal with Spartacus declaring that there will be no farewells. North graces us with a full rendering of the Love Theme, which opens with trepidation, and culminates exquisitely atop a solo violin lacrimoso. Yet from out this heartache rises hope as we hear the theme regain its more confident sumptuous beauty as Spartacus speaks of their eternal love.

“Prelude To Battle” offers a dichotomous cue, which opens with “Quiet Interlude”, a beautiful score highlight. We see a contemplative Spartacus carrying the heavy burden of his people as he gazes upon the encampment below. Later, as he walks among his people, he offers a quiet dignity and reassurance, as he understands that for many families this will be their last night together. North supports the contemplative moment with a full rendering of his Paternal Theme, which unfolds tenderly on warm strings with a sumptuous lyricism. Juxtaposed are repeating statements of muted trumpets and distant drums, harbingers of the battle, which comes with the dawn of the following day. At 2:20 it is a new day and we segue into “The Final Conflict” where Spartacus and Crassus finally meet in battle. I believe North perfectly evoked the menace of the Romans in this exceptional piece. The cinematography of this scene is impressive as we see thousands of Roman troops marching in precision, in the pattern of blocks. North supports their menace and progress with a full rendering of the Roman Theme, which opens with harsh drum strikes. Muted trumpet declarations of doom resound, joined in an unholy alliance with the might of timpani strikes. At 3:00 the drum cadence quickens, and becomes more aggressive atop snare drums that are joined by repeating horn declarations, which strike fear in the hearts of the slave army. We flow seamlessly into “Formations” where Spartacus signals the attack, utilizing his advantage of possessing the higher ground. He sets massive logs afire, which roll down the hillside smashing into the Roman infantry lines with devastating effect. North unleashes a harsh and growling repeating five-note construct as the slaves opening salvo succeeds. At 0:48 when news comes that the armies of Pompey and Lucullus will soon arrive, Spartacus orders a full frontal assault on Crassus before becoming encircled. Following a pause, the harsh cadence resumes, and is soon joined by a rising chorus of Roman trumpets as we see that the charge against the reformed Roman lines is doomed and the slaves are slaughtered.

In “Goodbye, My Life, My Love – End Title” Gracchus has provided Batiatus and Varinia travel documents and money, which will allow them to safely leave Rome – a final act of spite against Crassus. As they exit the city, Roman guards demand they dismount from their wagon while they inspect their documents. Varinia to her dismay sees a near dead Spartacus suffering a horrific crucifixion. She walks to him in pain, rouses him, and then proudly shows him his son, which he has never seen. She promises that he will be raised a free man and that she will ensure he remembers his father. We open plaintively on strings affanato, which usher in the Love Theme, full of heartache. Yet as she consoles him the theme is transmuted, becoming transcendent, and achieving a stirring romantic power, which brings a quiver and tears. We bear witness that sadness has given way to hope, and from out this transformation ascends Spartacus’ Theme, which rises on horns nobile for a final grand statement. We culminate our tale with a rousing flourish atop the Metapontum fanfare.

I offer a heartfelt thank you to Robert Townson for this stunning restoration of Alex North’s magnum opus, “Spartacus”, one of the greatest scores in film score art. The restoration of this treasure is superb and the sound quality, pristine. Alex North in the 1950s was a pioneer who led a new generation of composers in bringing innovative scoring methods to the cinema. He was a harbinger of what we now call modernism. This dynamic style was on full display with Spartacus where he joined traditional leitmotif constructs with the dissonant and tonal methods of the modernist school. North provided the film with a multiplicity of fine themes, several of which are now considered iconic. He perfectly captured the nobility and irrepressible spirit of Spartacus, the cruelty and menace of Rome, and the sublime romanticism of Spartacus’ and Varinia’s love. In scene after scene it is not Kubrick’s directing or cinematography, which catalyzes our emotions, but rather North’s supremely evocative music. I offer “Blue Shadows And Purple Hills”, “Expectant Parents” and “Quiet Interlude” as timeless examples of North’s mastery of his craft. In my judgment North enhanced, emboldened and empowered Kubrick’s narrative, achieving a masterful synergy rarely realized in film. I believe this score to be one of the finest ever written, a testament to the genius of Alex North, and one which I highly recommend you purchase for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the iconic Main Title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-spQt_tLBeI

Buy the Spartacus soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (4:00)
  • Main Title (3:17)
  • The Mines (3:01)
  • Caravan (1:15)
  • First Pair (3:44)
  • Gladiators Fight To The Death (2:20)
  • Brooding (2:20)
  • On To Vesuvius [Forward, Gladiators/Forest Meeting] (4:52)
  • Oysters And Snails (Film Version) (3:07)
  • Hopeful Preparations/Vesuvius Camp (1:59)
  • Vesuvius Montage (1:19)
  • Blue Shadows And Purple Hills (3:11)
  • Headed For Freedom (3:15)
  • Homeward Bound [On To The Sea/Beside The Pool] (6:27)
  • Metapontum Triumph (1:35)
  • Festival (3:21)
  • Expectant Parents (3:07)
  • Prelude To Battle [Quiet Interlude/The Final Conflict] (5:11)
  • Formations (1:35)
  • Goodbye, My Life, My Love – End Title (4:16)
  • Spartacus Love Theme (2:50)
  • On To the Sea / Infant Burial (3:03) – BONUS
  • Oysters and Snails / Festival (Album Version) (3:24) – BONUS

Running Time: 72 minutes 29 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-0516-1170 (1960/2016)

Music composed and conducted by Alex North. Additional conducting by Joseph Gershenson and Shorty Rogers. Original orchestrations by Alex North, Maurice de Packh, Samuel Matlovsky, Arthur Morton, Edward B. Powell and David Tamkin. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Arnold Schwarzwald. Score produced by Alex North and Joseph Gershenson. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. August 1, 2017 at 4:09 am

    Wow, your incredible effort you always put in these unbelievably detailed reviews really doesn’t get enough credit. Very impressive, I enjoy your stuff a lot. Keep going. All the Best,

    Lasse.

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